Over the weekend President George Bush described his war on terrorism as a "new crusade''. By invoking the spirit of the crusade, Mr Bush has cloaked himself in a mantle of profound political and religious meaning in both the Christian and, particularly, the Islamic world. The legacy of the brutality and fanaticism of the crusades has long cast a shadow across relations between the two faiths.
As the President tries to engineer support for his counter-attack from the Muslim nations, he needs to understand that "crusade'' is a word not to be employed lightly. In many regions, its use is highly inflammatory. Countries such as Syria and Egypt, where the original crusades were fought out, are less likely to sympathise with an operation, however justified, if it carries a label that arouses such intrinsic antipathy. For Bush to cast himself as the leader of a modern crusade is to fulfil one of militant Islam's most charged and dangerous descriptions of the US and western powers.
From a Western perspective, first the Protestant church and then an increasingly secular Western society have relegated the crusades to a distant and exotic adventure carried out by barbaric and foolhardy knights. While recent academic scholarship has done much to bring the subject back into focus as a complex and central element in the expansion of medieval Europe, the origins and meaning of the word are clouded.
The use of the term "crusade" has become more casual and secular. It is used readily in everyday life: a crusade to cut hospital waiting lists, a crusade for fair play in sport. Given the fact that, ultimately, the crusades to the Holy Land collapsed, the continued deployment of the word shows how far removed it has become from historical reality. Why else would people identify with something that failed? Its current, generic meaning is one of a sense of right or a quest for justice, and in this broad sense its roots can be traced back to medieval usage.
In the world of contemporary Islam, however, the crusade has retained a much sharper and more vivid presence, in large part because the outline of events in the medieval period has a number of pertinent parallels to the present day.
In 1099, the armies of the First Crusade (representing the Catholic Church of Western Europe) captured Jerusalem and were popularly reported as wading in the blood of their slain Muslim foes. Crusader states were set up and established Christian rule in the Levant.
In 1187, the Muslim jihad, or holy war – a fundamental part of the Islamic faith as laid out in the Koran – was called for. Under the charismatic leadership of Saladin, the forces of Islam retook the city of Jerusalem and relegated the Christians to a strip of land on the Mediterranean coast, until their eventual expulsion in 1291.
For today's Muslim world the ingredients are familiar: violent Western incursions, slaughter and oppression of the faithful and the loss of the holy city of Jerusalem. These are among the reasons why the crusade still has such a high profile in the Muslim Middle East.
At the start of the 20th century, as the Arab world began to shake off the shackles of Western imperialism, the struggles of their predecessors against the crusaders seemed highly relevant, and this trend has continued. And a role model was available: Saladin – a devout Muslim who had succeeded in driving out the invaders. Such a figure has obvious attractions in the modern age and contemporary political leaders have striven to appropriate his legacy.
Saddam Hussein, for example, has a huge mural depicting himself leading his Iraqi tanks into battle alongside an image of Saladin in front of his own mounted warriors. Saddam identifies himself as a leader who, like Saladin, will defeat the Westerners and drive them from the Middle East. (The fact that Saladin was a Kurd, in light of Saddam's harsh treatment of this group, is ironic.)
In 1992, the late President Assad of Syria oversaw the construction of a large equestrian statue of Saladin in Damascus. The emir is portrayed riding to victory, guarded by Muslim holy men, with defeated crusaders trailing on the ground behind his horse. Placed just outside the old citadel of Damascus, Saladin is protecting Islam and the city, while the West bows to him.
Colonel Gadaffi is another Muslim leader who his employed the ideas of jihad; in the 1980s he compared the United States to the crusaders and described the Americans as "leaders of the modern crusader offensive''.
A further, important parallel with the age of the crusades exists for Muslim militants in the form of Israel. Although the crusades were responsible for numerous atrocities against the Jews of Jerusalem (in 1099) and in western Europe (1096, 1147 and 1190), the close identification of Israel with the US, together with its status as an enemy of Islam and the occupier of the holy city, means the crusader kingdom of Jerusalem is seen as a forerunner for the modern Israeli state.
Some Muslim polemicists argue that the creation of Israel was the West's revenge for the failure of the crusades. They point out that the Christians were eventually expelled from the Levant and argue that the Jews inevitably will suffer the same fate. The militant Islamic groups in the Middle East – Hamas and Hizbollah – both invoke the struggle between the crusaders and jihad in their efforts to liberate Palestine. Most pointedly of all, one name of Osama bin Laden's organisation is "The World Islamic Front against Jews and Crusaders'', bringing President Bush's rhetoric directly against the chief suspect for the events of last week.
While Western Europe has largely shaken off the legacy of the crusades, their impact elsewhere in the Christian world shows just how long-lasting and destructive they were. In 1204 the army of the Fourth Crusade sacked the Christian city of Constantinople, the heart of the Greek Orthodox Church. For many this marked the ultimate betrayal of a movement supposed to be directed against infidel.
Such was the ill-feeling generated by this event that the Greek Orthodox church has continued to inveigh against the papacy for sponsoring the attack. Hardliners described the Pope as "the grotesque, two-headed monster of Rome''. In May 2001, however, Pope John Paul II issued an unprecedented apology for the sacking of Constantinople during his visit to Greece. He expressed no such regrets for the crusades to the Holy Land, during his following visit to Syria.
The West's apparent lack of regret for the crusades, the close identification of Israel with the crusader kingdom of Jerusalem and the memory of the atrocities committed against the Muslims of the Levant fan the flames of the jihad today. It is true that Westerners visiting countries such as Syria are made very welcome and, as individuals, feel relatively little sense of this anger. Yet at times of tension the old wounds reopen.
Saladin's successes provide a more than adequate example for his would-be successors to follow. As the West tries to work alongside Islamic countries, its leader would do well to be aware of the sensitivities aroused in his using the image of the crusade, and to speak with more care in future.
The writer is Senior Lecturer in Medieval History, Royal Holloway, University of LondonReuse content